Mabel Normand was an American silent film comedienne and actress. She was a popular star of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios and is noted as one of the film industry’s first female screenwriters, producers and directors. Onscreen she co-starred in commercially successful films with Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle, occasionally writing and directing movies featuring Chaplin. At the height of her career in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Normand had her own movie studio and production company.
Throughout the 1920s her name was linked with widely publicized scandals including the 1922 murder of William Desmond Taylor and the 1924 shooting of Courtland S. Dines, who was shot by Normand’s chauffeur with her pistol. She was not a suspect in either crime. Her film career declined, possibly due to both scandals and a recurrence of tuberculosis in 1923, which led to a decline in her health, retirement from films and her death in 1930.
Born Mabel Ethelreid Normand in New Brighton, Staten Island, New York, she grew up in extreme poverty. Her father, Claude Normand, was sporadically employed as a carpenter at Sailors’ Snug Harbor home for elderly seamen. Before she entered films at age 16 in 1909, Normand worked as an artist’s model, which included posing for postcards illustrated by Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl image. She met director Mack Sennett whilst at D. W. Griffith’s Biograph Company and embarked on a tumultuous affair with him; he later brought her across when he founded Keystone Studios in 1912. Her first films portrayed her as a bathing beauty, but Normand quickly demonstrated a flair for comedy and became a star of Sennett’s short films. Normand appeared with Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle in many short films.
She played a role in starting Chaplin’s film career. Chaplin had considerable initial difficulty adjusting to the demands of film acting and his performance suffered for it. After his first film appearance Making a Living, made by Sennet was filmed, Sennett felt he had made a costly mistake. Most historians agree it was Normand who persuaded him to give Chaplin another chance.